I remember sitting with friends watching one of the first television interviews with the recently elected President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. He was wearing a fairly pedestrian dark suit, she, a complimentary simple dress. As the first couple spoke about making history, family, and policy I couldn’t help but notice a familiar shine coming from the First Lady’s crossed legs. I grew up seeing that shine from either cocoa or Shea butter — in school, in church, the grocery store ... at home. Intellectually I understood what it meant for this country, with all of its racist warts and fears, to elect the first black president but still I hadn’t fully processed it emotionally until that moment.
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I smiled and thought: “The first lady of the United States wanted to make sure she wasn’t ashy on TV.”
Then one of my friends, who is also black, said something about the first lady’s glorious shine, drawing the same conclusion.
Now to many, I’m sure this must seem trivial. Of all the things to focus on, particularly in 2008 with the nation’s economy in a downward spiral and the military engaged in two wars, my friends and I are trying to decide if Michelle Obama uses cocoa or Shea butter on her skin. But to those who understand what it’s like to spend your life in a society yet not fully a part of it, then you understand the true nature of this seemingly innocuous conversation was not about moisturizing at all. It was about being represented. Reflected. Seen.
Famed sociologist Charles Horton Cooley dubbed the importance of visibility in human development “The Looking Glass" -- that is to say people shape the views of themselves in part by how others view them. When a system is structured in such a way that a certain segment of the population is treated as if it is expendable, resistance to this system is paramount for self-worth and ultimately survival. The election of President Obama was an important moment for the resistance. The election of President Donald Trump was the system’s response, a sentiment best illustrated by his repeated thank yous to those in the black community who did not vote.
Of course the Obama administration is not solely defined by identity politics. The merit of policies such as the Affordable Care Act or the withdrawal of troops in Iraq will serve as fodder for vigorous debates, rooted in quantifiable data for many years to come. But what is harder to measure yet every bit as important is the impact growing up with a black president has on a generation. Outside of perhaps voter turnout, what exactly is the metric one should use to calculate indifference, inspiration or in some cases disgust? And yes, I said disgust. For just as there is a fraction of the electorate who voted for President Obama because of the color of his skin, there is also a fraction that did not vote for him for that very same reason.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reported spikes in hate group and anti-government “patriot” chapters over the course of Obama’s presidency. I guess we could pretend the timing of the two is just a coincidence.
Just as we can pretend the push for new voter laws on the heels of Obama winning the presidency was a matter of odd timing. Since 1965, the U.S. Justice Department and federal courts have used Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to stop discriminatory voting changes in more than 3,000 cases. When the Supreme Court decided to gut the law in 2013, 16 states enacted new voting laws in time for the general election. Initially North Carolina was so blatantly racist with its changes that a circuit court said the changes were targeted at black voters with "almost surgical precision" and ruled against it. An understatement when you consider legislators amended the bill to eliminate the first week of early voting after learning that black voters used early voting significantly more than their white counterparts in 2008 and 2012.
I’m sure that too was all just a coincidence.
Centuries ago the Founding Fathers warned us of the ills of a two-party republic, and now we’re understanding why. Sensible political discourse has eroded to the point in which 2+2=4 may soon be discounted as fake news. Because of this, the discussion surrounding President Obama’s legacy will undoubtedly be clouded by a cartoonish level of hyperbole from both sides of the spectrum. “The worse president ever” is leaving office with 75 straight months of job growth and the fourth highest job approval rating in history. “The greatest president ever” won the Nobel Peace Prize for not being George W. Bush and then proceeded to spend every year in office engaged in war. The topic of Obama is complicated and we’ve gotten progressively worse at handling complicated.
But one thing is clear -- the Obamas were first and there is significant power in that. The empowerment of their presence and their shine will be felt for many generations to come and is as much a part of their legacy as Obamacare. So to those who find comfort in blaming President Obama for racial tensions, know this: race relations did not get worse under the first black president...they were simply exposed.
LZ Granderson is an ABC News contributor. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.